To stand here would have been the death of me
Six centuries ago, when Ashdown lay
Sequestered, sole preserve of royalty,
Where kings and noble sporting men might play
Untroubled by the unwashed working folk.
Inside the palisade, the sleek harts fed
At ease: the desperate villager who broke
The fence to feed his family chanced his head.
Today, commuters course across the hill
Unhindered, hasty, heedless of the deer.
The hedge and ditch are gone: we’re free to kill
Two hundred with impunity each year.
So who’s the villain in my bloody tale?
And what, and who, is now beyond the pale?
For some time, I’ve wanted to write about the great fence, or pale, that enclosed the royal deer park on Ashdown Forest. Precise details of when, how and by whom it was built are hard to come by, but it certainly existed in medieval times, when Edward III granted the Forest to his son, John of Gaunt, as a hunting ground, and it became part of the vast Duchy of Lancaster. By the 17th Century, the pale had fallen into near-total disrepair; today, only traces of the ditch, bank and palisade that once ran for 23 miles over the heath remain.
Driving over the Forest yesterday, I saw a sign indicating that there have been over 250 deer collisions on its roads so far this year. It’s a route heavily used by commuters, and such grim casualty figures are perhaps inevitable. Equally predictable is the reaction of drivers and local politicians, who, in the face of such slaughter, are calling not for lower speed limits or improved awareness, but a cull of the deer population. I wonder what our medieval forebears, prince and peasant alike, would make of it all. N.